Ski Posters in a Scottish Attic
By Everett Potter
When Robert Walker Johnston died in 2003, he left a large house in Paisley, Scotland as well as its contents to his son, Russell, a London lawyer.
“My father was a great collector of paper,” recalls Russell Johnston. “The house was filled with books, mostly first editions. His favorites included works by Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. He used to drive my mother crazy with all the books around.”
As Russell Johnston was going through his father’s house, he eventually got around to going up to the attic. It was there that he discovered his father’s greatest secret. Meticulously stored, often in their original mailing tubes, were original vintage ski posters. Hundreds and hundreds of ski posters. As Johnston began the slow process of carefully removing them from their tubes and unrolling them, it dawned on him what he had found. In the end, he unearthed close to 1,000 vintage ski posters, many of them in pristine condition.
“It was very fortunate,” said Johnston, with classic Scottish understatement. “I could never have afforded to buy them. I was unaware of any of this in the attic, and my father never spoke about the collection. I honestly think he forgot about them.”
Once Johnstone realized what he was sitting on, he said “I began to visit the odd auction and started attending the annual January ski poster auction at Christie’s in London.”
Johnston learned about the artists who had created the posters and he also learned about condition and why it mattered to collectors. While many posters were in good condition, some were decidedly not and “I sent some out for repair.”
Yet it was only after he found the collection that he learned about how the collection was actually assembled. His father, Robert Walker Johnston was born in Glasgow in 1930 and joined the Royal Air Force at age 17 in 1947, training as a navigator. He was stationed in Vienna, and worked for the RAF on British Lancaster’s. He was loaned out to the US Air Force at that time as well and flew on Flying Fortresses. He also had ample opportunity to travel around post-War Europe, visiting Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France.
“When he traveled, he was ripping ski posters off walls,” laughs Russell Johnston. His father became increasingly serious about his collection, and began to seek out the artists who designed these posters as well as the printers who produced them.
“He maintained those relationships through the mid 1960’s,” Johnston says, even as his father went on to become a professional soccer player in Scotland and Canada, and later worked for Lockheed and finally Chivas Regal. “They would send him proofs of the posters, or extra copies.”
Robert Walker Johnston’s poster passion was for skiing and mountaineering posters and the collection is astonishing, with major works by legendary poster artists such as Ludwig Hohlwein, Emil Cardinaux, and Roger Broders.
Yet it’s not the major works, which can turn up at Swann Galleries and Christie’s from time to time, which are of the greatest interest here. Instead it’s the true rarities, the anonymous early posters for resorts all over the world, the less celebrated works by famous graphic artists and posters that are so scarce that only a single copy or two is known to previously exist.
The Johnston collection includes such incredible rarities as Amy Jones’ legendary poster for “Lake Placid Club” from 1938, which is available for 3,800 GBP ($5,812 with US dollar at $1.53). Artist Ronald Hugon’s “Pyrenees: Superbagneres Luchon,” is also a find and priced at 2,100 GBP ($3,212). One of the true discoveries in the collection is a cache of Soviet era ski posters rarely if ever seen in the West. They include an anonymous poster depicting a ski racer for “Third Masters Tournament” from 1952. It’s priced at 8,800 GBP ($13,460) but when it sold at Christie’s in London in what had to be a very heated sale in 2008, it went for an astonishing 36,000 GBP ($55,062), making it the most expensive ski poster ever sold.
While European and US resorts are well represented, there are also posters advertising resorts in India, Japan, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Japan. Indeed, “Mt Fuji View Hotel: Lake Kawaguchi” is from 1935, a prewar poster celebrating ice skating and skiing. At 5,800 GBP ($8871), its price is probably in keeping with its scarcity.
Johnston also has quite a stash of photographic posters from the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Prosaic and less prized when they were created, they are now in some demand simply because few of them still exist. They include “Taos for Snow,” a 1965 anonymous photographic poster for 750 GBP ( $1,147), as well as Paul Ryan’s close up of a skier in a USA racing helmet for the X Winter Games in Grenoble in 1968 for 480 GBP ($735). A poster commemorating “Aspen 8 Interski” from 1968, is an anonymous and scarce work, priced at 1,100 GBP ($1,682).
Johnston’s personal favorites include rarities by the artist Martin Peikart, including one for the resort of Murren for 5,900 GBP ($9,025) and another for “Montreux-Oberland Bernoise: MOB,” featuring a female skier napping on the roof of a rustic chalet, an odd image and a true find even at 6,800 GBP ($10,400). He also has several posters by artists Pierre Kramer, including an advertisement for Northland skis, which Johnston says may well be the only one in existence. He’s asking 9,500 GBP ($14,530) for it.
Johnston had the first 100 posters cleaned and repaired in 2007. That’s about the time he created his site, originalskiposters.com.
“I started buying ski posters as well,” Johnston says. “People would see the images on the site, inquire about the price, and then tell me they had an identical poster that they wanted to sell.”
Johnston, who learned to ski in Scotland in 1975, now skis in Verbier every winter with friends, and also skis in the Italian Dolomites and Austria. It was a different story with Robert Walker Johnston.
“Never in his life did he get on a pair of skis,” admits Johnston. “I don’t think he liked the the idea of skis moving under him.”
You can buy posters from the Robert Walker Johnston archive at www.originalskiposters.com. Russell Johnston also offers giclee prints of many images, high quality reproductions of the originals at a fraction of the price. The posters are also available from www.antiqueskishop.com